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To What Should He Swear? Coronation Oaths and King Charles III

The unmistakable pomp of the English coronation ceremony, celebrated in Westminster Abbey since the Norman Conquest over 900 years ago, makes visible and tangible the authority of monarchs. For much of their history, coronations have not made kings. Starting in the early fourteenth century, English monarchs assumed power on the day their predecessor died, usually weeks and even months before a public crowning could take place. Yet coronation ceremonies historically have fulfilled a dual purpose of sanctifying the divine mystery of monarchy as an institution and of legitimizing a particular ruler who has acceded to the throne. Coronations set kings apart from their people through highly sacred rituals and spectacles, from the act of unction (the imbuing of Holy Oil) to the parading of glistening vestments, to the swearing of oaths before God. Charles III has already sworn one oath and will make more at his upcoming coronation.


An old page of a manuscript with scrawling handwritten text.
Henry VIII coronation oath manuscript with notes by Henry. Image courtesy British Library. Public domain.

Coronations have often animated controversy. As ceremonies, they are intended to set monarchs above their people, but in practice, those who crown kings might intend to keep their monarchs more grounded. When King Edward II rose to power in 1307, the nobles who had been frustrated with his father’s reign sought to ensure the new king’s compliance to Magna Carta by adding a fourth oath to the coronation ceremony. With upholding the laws, customs, and liberties of the realm, preserving and protecting the Christian Church, and rendering impartial justice to the people, Edward swore to “uphold the rightful laws and customs which the people of the realm have chosen (quas vulgus elegerit).”


Did this fourth oath obligate monarchs to uphold laws not of their making – laws made by parliament, for example? Did such an oath require monarchs to support future enactments by parliament? William Prynne argued as much in 1643 as royalists and parliamentarians erupted into civil war, and Robert Brady in 1684, again embroiled in constitutional crisis, would reply that such an oath must be retrospective; monarchs must uphold the laws of ancient kings not future parliaments. At stake in these interpretations was the power of monarchs over laws and the question of who (if anyone) had authority to limit the actions of kings or to hold them accountable.


Earlier in the seventeenth century, King James I leveled his own argument by swearing in his English coronation to uphold “the laws the people have” rather than “the laws the people have chosen.” He emphasized the king’s authority over parliament and people by swearing to “grant and keep” the kingdom’s laws and “the Prerogatives of the Kings thereof.” In these ways, oaths did more than reflect the power of monarchs. Their formulations – sworn before God – created authority and possibly limited it. In the trial of James’s son, King Charles I, the President of the High Court of Justice, John Bradshaw, argued that parliaments could indeed hold kings accountable through the “Oath that they took unto their People,” for oaths confirmed the king’s election by the people and his duties to them.


Coronations have often caused religious controversy, for monarchs also swear to preserve and protect the Christian Church, and they themselves are crowned by church authorities. In the wake of Protestant Reformation and the break of the Church of England with Rome, Henry VIII altered the language of the coronation oath to declare the monarch’s role as Supreme Head over the Church of England. Emphasizing that his oath to uphold church and law be “nott preiudyciall to hys jurysdiccion and dignite ryall,” Henry likened the English king’s control over church and state to the authority of Constantine and other Roman emperors over their domains.


But Henry’s emendations also retained certain problems; for, if a monarch swore an oath before God as “Supreme Head of the Church,” and received unction through holy oil, did he or she gain spiritual power as a priest as well as temporal power? In 1547, when Archbishop Thomas Cranmer performed the coronation unction on Henry’s eagerly protestant son, Edward VI, Cranmer noted that the “oil, if added, is but a ceremony,” not elevating the king to the level of priest but imploring him to rule temporally as a virtuous steward of the realm and her church. Monarchs might cure scrofula through their touch but not perform priestly offices.


The contemporary oaths of office – which King Charles III has and will take – continue this complex history. The oaths themselves have their origin in the “Glorious” Revolution of 1688/89 and the Acts of Union of 1707, when the specter of a Catholic monarch fueled anti-Catholic hysteria. King Charles III need not technically have a coronation, but he is lawfully required to take three religious oaths upon his accession or soon thereafter: the Scottish oath to uphold the Presbyterian church in Scotland, the accession oath to be a faithful Protestant, and the oath usually given at the coronation, swearing to uphold the laws of the realm and the rights and privileges of the Church of England. Charles III swore the first oath in September.


Whereas Charles III, himself a committed Anglican, has confirmed his intention to take the oath relating to the settlement of the Church of England, some have questioned whether it makes sense for the current monarch of the United Kingdom to swear these religious oaths at all. Although a diverse and multi-faith society, the UK alone in Europe has retained a religious coronation. Many have argued that Charles’s coronation oaths should reflect contemporary society, not the religion or empire of the past. The UK Government has recently confirmed that some of the wording of Charles’s oath will be amended because the number of Commonwealth realms has “evolved” since 1953, but no other changes are expected to be made. Controversial as well has been the cost of the coronation and of the royal family itself amid the UK’s continued financial hardships, and questions of which royal family members should or should not attend.


Historically, coronation oaths caused controversy precisely because kingship mattered. Monarchs could wield real authority in the church, state, and empire, even though (as historians remind us) their power was imperfect, uneven, or fragile and always required negotiation. But if monarchs today merely represent their people ceremonially rather than rule them; if their power is largely ineffectual; if their position is mostly symbolic, to what purpose should they swear an oath at all?


A digital reproduction of the first of 19 sheets of copper engraving of the coronation procession of James II of England. Black and white engraving showing several groups of figures, one carries trumpets, drums, more trumpets, followed by robed figures in procession.
The Coronation Procession of King James II and Queen Mary of Modena. Public Domain.

 

Jamie Gianoutsos is associate professor of history at Mount St. Mary’s University (Maryland), specializing in early modern Britain (1500-1850), including intellectual history, the history of gender, culture and political thought. Her first book, The Rule of Manhood: Tyranny, Gender, and Classical Republicanism in England, 1603-1660 (Cambridge 2021), was the co-winner of the Istvan Hont Prize for best book in intellectual history. Her next book, currently under contract with Penguin Classics UK, provides an exploration for academic and popular audiences of the long classical republican tradition in England, America, France, and Haiti. For future projects, she is also researching the role of the newspaper in the development of republican thought and conceptions of the freedom of speech in the Anglo-American tradition.


 

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